In his memoir Life Itself, Roger Ebert described what cancer had done to him: “Today I look like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum.”
The legendary film critic’s death on April 4 brought to mind an interview I did with him in which he discussed his decision to go public with his ravaged looks.
His face had been greatly disfigured by surgery for thyroid cancer, salivary gland cancer, and cancer of the jaw. Yet he boldly posed with his wife, Chaz, for a photograph that accompanied a story he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, where worked for many years. The story ran under the headline, “This is the Face of Illness.”
“Acceptance is a wise course to take,” he told me in our interview, published in June, 2012, in the magazine Cancer Today. “We spend too much time trying to hide and deny physical realities.”
Ebert sent me his responses by e-mail because he was unable to speak. When talking in person, he communicated using a computer program named Alex that spoke for him while he typed.
In a public way, Ebert grappled with challenges faced by other survivors who are visibly changed by cancer surgery.
“A lot of patients get very emotional when trying to get their life together,” psychologist Michelle Corove Fingeret told me for the article. Fingeret, director of the Body Image Therapy Service at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, continued: “Part of the process involves telling yourself that it’s OK to be bothered by appearance changes. A lot of patients get down on themselves. They say, ‘I should just be happy to be alive.’”
There are two types of people changed by cancer: those who have had major changes and those with minor changes that still loom large to them.
I am in that second category. Sometimes I feel like I am wearing a big “C,” and then I get down on myself for thinking I have nothing to complain about compared to others whose appearance has changed dramatically.
I have scars under each collarbone from where doctors implanted Hickman catheters so I could receive chemotherapy, medicine, and transfusions intravenously. I have dark spots on my neck that I call “chemo blobs.” There is also a star-shaped mark from a feeding tube. I try to see these as badges of valor.
The backs of my hands have white spots on them from the prednisone that I take for an inflammation in my liver caused by Graft vs. Host Disease, where the bone marrow donor cells attack the recipient after transplant. The prednisone weakens your immune system, allowing for these outbreaks.
When you’re just out of treatment or still in it, you know you look like a cancer patient, and there’s no sense in wishing otherwise. As for me, my skin color was bad, and I had dropped some 20 pounds off an already thin frame. One person actually said to me after I had removed the scarf that usually covered my bald head, “You look like a concentration camp survivor.” It was one of the worst things to say to a cancer survivor, especially one who is Jewish.
This kind of comment is thankfully rare. It’s more about confronting the inner critic, which Roger Ebert did so bravely.
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